xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

'Sacrificing Margaret Morgan,' Harford's little known role in the origins of the Civil War

An unidentified newspaper article in support of four men who forcibly took Margaret Morgan and her children from Pennsylvania to Harford County in 1837, claiming Morgan was a runaway slave. Her case was the subject of lecture Saturday at the county Historical Society.
An unidentified newspaper article in support of four men who forcibly took Margaret Morgan and her children from Pennsylvania to Harford County in 1837, claiming Morgan was a runaway slave. Her case was the subject of lecture Saturday at the county Historical Society. (Courtesy Maryland State Archives)

The name Margaret Morgan may not be as universally well known as that of Dred Scott, but Morgan, a Harford County native, and her legal case also played a part in the run up to the American Civil War, according to two county residents who have done recent research about her.

Iris Barnes and Jacob Bensen presented “Sacrificing Margaret Morgan,” a lecture about Morgan and her kidnapping, on Saturday afternoon to an appreciative gathering of about 50 people at the Historical Society of Harford County in Bel Air. The lecture was part of the society’s Black History Month programs.

Advertisement

Morgan’s case led to a Supreme Court decision that helped put the United States on the path to its Civil War, Barnes and Bensen said.

Bensen, an administrative assistant at the historical society, and Barnes, executive director of the Hosanna School Museum in Darlington and a doctoral candidate at Morgan State University, said they had discovered they were independently researching Morgan’s story and decided to share it with others.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Margaret Morgan became the subject of the 1842 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, which established a number of seemingly contradictory precedents regarding the ownership of slaves and the rights of states to abide by the laws of another state or the federal government regarding slavery, according to Bensen and Barnes.

The court’s ruling resulted in “confusion,” they said.

Historians have also concluded the court’s findings in Prigg led, at least indirectly, to the dismantling of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act and a passage of a more stringent such law in 1850. The Prigg decision also foreshadowed the court’s decision in the 1950 Dred Scott case, where it ruled slaves or their descendants were not citizens (and, by extension, that federal laws, such as the 1820 Missouri Compromise, could not grant their freedom).

“And it all started right here in Harford County,” Barnes said.

Advertisement

Born free, or not?

Margaret Morgan was born in the Mill Green area along Broad Creek off of today’s Route 646 in what was then known as the Dublin district of the county, Barnes said. Her birth date is not recorded, but is believed to have been between 1800 and 1805. Her parents had been manumitted, or freed, by their owner, John Ashmore, probably because they had reached the age when slaves typically were “retired,” in their mid-40s when they were considered less useful, Barnes said.

“We know they were older and living on the Ashmore property when Margaret was born,” she said.

Ashmore, however, never signed a formal document freeing them, which would play a central role in the plight that would envelop their daughter. The mill and some surrounding buildings are privately owned and are within a state historic district. Barnes said they visited the site.

Margaret married a local free black man named Jerry Morgan in 1828, and they had two children before moving north in 1832 into neighboring York County, where they had four more children. Barnes said her research indicates the Morgans went freely back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line separating Pennsylvania, a free state, from Maryland, still a state where slavery was legal.

After John Ashmore died, one of his heirs, either his widow or his daughter, according to the Maryland State Archives, wanted to reclaim Morgan and her offspring on the grounds they were still slave property. Barnes said there is only speculation why the sudden interest in Morgan, which she said could have been because the family was in debt. She also does not know why John Ashmore didn’t formally manumit Morgan’s parents.

In 1837, the Ashmore heir hired Edward Bemis, who hired another Dublin resident, Edward Prigg, for the hunt. Two other men, Jacob Forwood and Stephen Lewis, joined them. The four went into York County and, in accordance with the law at the time, they sought and were granted permission by warrant issued from a local justice of the peace named Thomas Henderson to take the alleged fugitives into custody.

According to Barnes, the slave catchers found the Morgan family asleep in their home and packed all six, still in their night clothes, into a wagon and drove them to Henderson’s house. But because of conflicting stories told by the Morgans and the slave catchers, the magistrate was not ready to authorize anyone’s removal to Maryland.

Kidnapped

“Henderson says, ‘let’s step back and look at this,’ and he actually frees Jerry Morgan,” Barnes said, but during the night, the Bemis-Prigg group took Margaret and all of her children back across the border to Maryland.

They were quickly sold to what records describe as a Southern slaveholder, although there are no documents available showing if the sale was actually sanctioned by Harford County Judge Stevenson Archer. Barnes said Morgan and her children were eventually brought back to Harford County, but later sold again or perhaps moved south or west with the Ashmores, Barnes said, after Morgan’s petition for freedom was denied by the Harford court.

“Conditions were changing,” she said. “Slaves weren’t needed so much in Maryland. Some local families who had owned slaves moved to places like Texas where cotton was still king.”

The kidnapping of Morgan and her family touched off an interstate court battle that also involved the governors of both states. Jerry Morgan fought to have his wife freed, making several trips to the Pennsylvania state capital in Harrisburg to directly petition Gov. Joseph Ritner. Morgan died a tragic death, Barnes said, drowning after jumping overboard from a Susquehanna River ferry after a group of white passengers and crew members accused him of stealing a coat.

Prigg and his group were charged with kidnapping in Pennsylvania and eventually convicted in 1839. They appealed and the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court, which in 1842 voided the conviction by ruling Pennsylvania’s law violated both the constitution’s Article IV, which allowed the return of escaped persons escaping from one state to another, and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. The federal law, said the court, superseded the state’s.

Breaking the Union

But, the court’s ruling, which produced six majority opinions, including one by Justice Roger B. Taney, eventually to become chief justice and lead the court in the Dred Scott decision, created all manner of confusion, according to Bensen and Barnes.

On one hand, the court ruled the action of taking Morgan and her family back to Maryland as fugitive slaves was legal, but the court also ruled, according to the majority opinion by Justice Joseph Story: “As to the authority so conferred upon state magistrates [to deal with runaway slaves], while a difference of opinion has existed, and may exist still on the point, in different states, whether state magistrates are bound to act under it; none is entertained by this Court that state magistrates may, if they choose, exercise that authority, unless prohibited by state legislation.”

This in turn opened the door for states to pass laws instructing their magistrates and sheriffs and other court officers to take no part in enforcing fugitive slave laws, leaving that strictly up to federal law officers, according to Barnes and Bensen.

Advertisement

Pro-slavery elements were distressed by that aspect of the decision, they said. Pennsylvania passed several such laws, as did other Northern states, and Congress retaliated with passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Advertisement

Bensen, who has worked on the Maryland Archives’ Legacy of Slavery Project, said the Prigg case amplified the public debate over whether the U.S. Constitution is “a pro-slavery document or not a pro-slavery document.” He then traced many of the events and court rulings that led up to the eventual breaking up of the union over the issue of slavery and the Prigg case’s legacy to the events that followed.

A mystery

In her research, Barnes, whose doctoral dissertation is examining the history slavery in the Chesapeake Region, has uncovered the names of many old line Harford families who were active slave owners or who were involved on both sides of the Morgan freedom case, she said. Among those names are Hays, Bond, Archer and Pyles.

But as to what actually happened to Margaret Morgan? No one knows for sure, Barnes said.

Previous research indicates Morgan and her family were “sold south,” but there the trail ends. No documents have been found to show if she ever left Harford County or was settled in another state.

“We just don’t know,” Barnes said. “We are continuing to search and hope to have an answer to that question some day. We have a lot of research to do.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement